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31 August 2000

Our current howler (part III): It’s nice to be nice

Synopsis: When the Washington press corps critiques itself, the glass often seems mostly full.

Commentary by Bernard Kalb, Susan Feeney, Howard Kurtz, David Maraniss
Reliable Sources, CNN, 8/26/00

It ain't the fault of Kurtz and Kalb. It ain't the fault of their individual guests. But when the Washington press corps critiques itself, the glass often seems mostly full. Example: On Reliable Sources, Jay Nordlinger said that "liberal bias" was probably driving recent coverage. Marvin Kalb made a worthwhile rejoinder:

KALB: Jay, you've made your point. I've got to pick this up. Where was the indictment of the liberal media when Gore was not in the groove? There was no problem there when Gore was under criticism, being attacked?

Readers will know our view on this; we think it's impossible to look at this past year's coverage and say that the "liberal media" has been trying to help out poor Gore. Continuing, Kurtz turned to Susan Feeney. And she had a cheerful perspective:

KURTZ: Susan?
FEENEY: No, I was just thinking, you have to add that any journalist you ask would tell you that Gore has never been as bad as his caricatures and it was really a matter of time, maybe journalists, but certainly voters, would take another look at him. And I think that's part of the factor, too.

We know Feeney a bit, and we like her a lot. But we couldn't help noting her answer. According to Feeney, "any journalist you asked" would have said that Gore wasn't "as bad as his caricatures." You have to love those upbeat scribes! But who exactly had been shaping those caricatures? Of course—the Washington press corps! Had citizens been storming our TV studios and shouting out insults about Gore's earth tones? But on Reliable Sources, panelist-pundits put the nicest face on their group. Individuals' names are never mentioned; trends are rarely as bad as they seem. More often, as with Feeney's answer, the best face is put on the press.

So it was when Maraniss spoke about the VP and abortion. Different people will adopt different views about Gore's record in this area. But in the statement which we looked at yesterday, the scribe told a standard press story. Why exactly had Gore gone so long without a press conference this spring?

MARANISS: [T]he whole Elian story was breaking during half of that period and he didn't want to be answering those questions every day. But it was really stupid. And it was made so apparent the same way when he would answer questions about abortion and say, you know, he didn't change his mind. Then one day he decided to just say yes, I did change my mind and I've evolved on that subject, that's the end of it. You know, it's a one-day story once you do that and you'd think that someone would have learned that lesson, but he clearly hadn't.

The press corps loves to tell this story, a story in which the corps paints itself as restrained and wise. Kalb rushed to voice affirmation:

KALB: And as a consequence, by making that disclosure, he's been freed and is much easier with the press.

It makes for a happy ending. The press corps loves to tell this story: If the pols would only put it all out, judicious scribes quickly back off. But reality is rarely much like that. (In 1995, the Pillsbury Commission put information on the table. The press corps has yet to report it.) In the present case, we're unclear when Gore is supposed to have made that "disclosure," and abortion has hardly gone away as an issue in the press corps' assessments of Gore. The Wall Street Journal wrote a major, page-one article on the subject less than two weeks before this show went to air, for example. As we noted yesterday, the article detailed the very themes that were being discussed back in New Hampshire (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/30/00). Rightly or wrongly, abortion has not been a "one-day story" in the press corps' assessment of Gore.

But pundits tend to look on the bright side when asked to review their own group. We were struck by another statement by Maraniss, who is clearly one of the Washington press corps' top scribes:

KALB: Let me ask a generous question, then. Was Gore's reticence in not meeting the press due to the difficulty he may have had about the need to mislead the press about politics in general?
MARANISS: Well, I think he's, you know, in our book, Ellen Nakashima, and I show a fairly long history of him misleading at certain points. There's a whole chapter called "Reporting Gore" in 1988 where his staff was writing him memos urging him to sort of stop exaggerating what he did in terms of his home building and on the farm and so on, and that pattern was there for a long period of time even though some of the most notorious examples are not fair to him, like the Internet. He really was instrumental in developing the Internet. He was the one congressman who understood the whole thing in the 19—the late '70s when no other congressman gave a darn about it. So it's funny, you see that pattern, but the press sometimes picks the wrong examples.

We don't particularly agree with Maraniss' assessment of 1988, but that's a discussion for another day. Consider Maraniss' statement about "inventing the Internet," in which he says "the press pick[ed] the wrong example." In this statement, Maraniss says that, in his opinion, the claim that Gore exaggerated his role in developing the Internet has been unfair to Gore. But "inventing the Internet" has been a steady drumbeat within the press corps, in which Gore's character has been assailed for more than a year. When Maraniss says the example was unfair, he makes a remarkable indictment of the press corps—one which we think is wholly justified. (He also comes forward to make this assessment some seventeen months after the "wrong example" was chosen.) But in the pleasant atmospherics of Reliable Sources, no press corps error is ever too troubling. Instead of talking about "inventing the Internet," what should the press corps have done? It should have gone back twelve years to 1988, and told us how Gore once allegedly exaggerated his role as a farmer. But it's absurd to think that an ancient, trivial example like that could have played the role that "inventing the Internet" has played. No matter—on Reliable Sources, even when pundits describe howling press error, it turns out to be "no harm, no foul." In this case, they didn't invent a damaging slander. They just picked out "the wrong example."

The Founders would have well understood that this is how Reliable Sources would be. Checks on power define our system; unchecked authority is presumed to corrupt. But in our current system, no checks exist to keep the press from describing itself. The celebrity press corps critiques itself. No other sector has that kind of power—and the outcome is clear in the press corps' low standards. Election coverage starts in earnest next Tuesday. To the public, we'll say this: Good luck!


Tomorrow: We may have a real good idea.